How to Handle Conflict With an Older Co-Worker

Dear Office Mom,
I’m having a battle of the generations with my co-worker. She’s older and set in her ways. She’s got seniority in more ways than one and her word is gospel. I’m in my early thirties and open to trying things differently (mostly more efficiently) and have no issues voicing my objections. We don’t really mix. So far there haven’t been any knock-down, drag-out fights, but you can start to feel the tension. There is so much I can learn from her and would love to have a solid working relationship with her. Any advice?
— Andrea

Dear Andrea,

Granted, we may not relate to some things due to the generational divide, but we're all people. We tend to have similar needs and appreciate many of the same traits, behaviors, and kind of support from our peers regardless of age.  Going into any job, offering up fresh ideas, and voicing objections to anyone with seniority (regardless of how old they are) is likely to pose challenges. 

Your co-worker may be defensive and think you don’t know jackshit. I get that. She may be set in her ways. I get that too. Your energy, skills, and new ideas may be threatening as hell. But, she’s got seniority, and has knowledge and information you want. For that reason, I suggest you plan for and then have a conversation over coffee, a decadent dessert or lunch.  After a little chit-chat make your move to clear the air by letting her know your relationship is important and talk about how you can work together more harmoniously.

I find that people are just people and age is just a number. If you discover otherwise, you can at least take the high road. Here's an approach you can use time after time. Trust me; there will be a next time. Here's what I recommend.

  1. Not trying to turn on you, but look in before you look out. And by that, I mean, start by assessing your behavior.  Are your interpersonal styles quite different? Are you more straightforward and direct? How do you voice your objections? Do you recognize the value in her opinions and viewpoints? Or, could your approach and remarks undercut or diminish hers, even though that may not be your intention? These are important considerations.  Do you talk with others about her outdated viewpoints to rally support for yours?  After you look in, look outward. Is there an underlying theme to the conflict you two experience? Is she merely old school? Or, is it her way or the highway? Is it about specific processes? Speculating as to what’s driving the interpersonal dynamics can be helpful. Identify a couple of specific examples of when and how the two of you clash.
  2. Next, focus on her strengths and what you admire about her. What do you hope to learn from her in the future? Identify specifics, so you’re ready to talk about it. By acknowledging your respect and recognizing her value, she may open up and express an interest in learning from you and trying new approaches to the way you work. 
  3. Lastly, be prepared to apologize for how you may have contributed to any friction between the two of you. Listen and try to understand her perspective.  You may not get it, but that's okay, it's her perception. Whatever it is, remember, it's not about who is right or wrong. The goal is to understand one another, agree on how to handle situations in the future and move forward. Often a conversation is all it takes.

~YOM